In Futurismo it is very important for us to be innovative and up to date with the research done around the world on marine mammals, and particularly the marine mammals that we see here in the Azores during our whale watching trips. So, 4 of the Futurismo biologists, Laura Gonzalez, Fadia Al Abbar, Rafael Martins, and Victor Ojeda Martin, attended the conference and each of them attended a workshop as well.
Workshop: Cachalote consortium
In the workshop of “CACHALOTE Consortium”, up to 30 students and researchers from all over the world shared their knowledge, experience, and doubts on different topics regarding sperm whales. During this workshop that two of Futurismo’s biologists attended, we learned the newest research about sperm whales across the world. One presentation was given by Shane Gero, founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project and one of the main researchers of sperm whale cultures. He talked about a platform called “Flukebook”, which aims to increase collaboration across the world using photo identification on the tails of sperm whales in order to learn more about their distribution and societies. Photos can be matched to an entire database and will help us to understand where the sperm whales go (by mark-recapture) with a non-invasive method, simply with a picture of the fluke!
Then one of our collaborators, Lisa Steiner, who lives on Faial, Azores, gave an interesting lecture on her 30 years of study on the sperm whales. She used photo ID to understand the individuals seen off the coast of the Azores. She matched female individuals to the southern islands in Macaronesia and had matches of males with the Northern Europe. Unfortunately, one ship strike was matched with one of the individuals sighted in the Azores, so this was a very emotional moment.
Another great way to understand sperm whales is acoustics, as they spend most of their lives doing long deep dives. So many of the topics covered during this workshop were about acoustics. An interesting example is that sperm whales use what is called “codas” to socialize, which differ part of the world. It would be a great opportunity to create a worldwide database of codas, as Shane Gero suggests, to find out more about the social lives of sperm whales across the globe.
Another topic was the population genetics of the sperm whales. Biagio Violi previously worked with us in Futurismo on Pico and Sao Miguel, and he presented his findings at this workshop. Biagio is a scientist who just finished his PhD in marine sciences leading a project on population genetic of sperm whale within Mediterranean Sea and close North East atlantic regions. He collaborated with scientists from the whole Mediterranean and groups from Azores, Canaries, Madeira, and the North of Spain on the Atlantic side. His main findings were that the Mediterranean sperm whale population, which was initially described as a single population and isolated from the Atlantic one, has two distinct populations: a Mediterranean one and a second one, that is a hybrid between Atlantic and Mediterranean lineages. This is an important finding in terms of conservation as it means that the populations could be considered as two separate populations. Further analyses will describe the dynamic within Mediterranean Sea, which is useful to improve conservation strategies for the Mediterranean area where ship collisions, ingestion of plastic debris, and entanglements are threatening this vulnerable populations.
Indeed, threats were also covered during this workshop. Climate change, shipping routes or human interaction (i.e. fisheries) were among the topics considered. One lecture was about identifying the relationship between the active shipping routes and the presence of sperm whales using acoustics. It was found that the sperm whales seemed to avoid the shipping lane, although it was uncertain whether this also had to do with habitat preference. One impressive talk given by Jonathan Gordon was about the sperm whales depredating on longline fisheries. There is a problem of sperm whales getting entangled in fishing lines, but also a problem for the fishermen.
In the photo you can see the last round of lecturers of the workshop, Including Biagio Violi and Lisa Steiner, our collaborators.
Workshop: Keep on Gramping 2.0
For a second workshop, another biologist from Futurismo, and 24 scientists from all around the world (Portugal, Italy, France, Spain, Scotland, Wales, Taiwan, USA, Maldives, England, Holland) met to discuss and share information about Risso’s dolphins. Several subjects were debated among which: social structure, behaviors, photo identification process, temporal distribution, re-sightings and matches.
The use of drones to better understand behaviors that cannot be understood from the surface was also discussed. The maximum distance and the correct way to approach the animals is crucial to avoid stress and disturbance to the animals. In Scotland, due to Risso’s research, it was found that there is a zone where these animals spend most of the time with their calves, and Nicola established an MPA that was accepted this year by the scotland government to protect them. Dolphin watching rules and the possibility to forbid the swimming with this species in Pico was also discussed. In this workshop, first automated photo identification program, named as SPIR, developed by Rosalia Maglietta, was also presented.
Our fourth biologist who attended the conference was in the marine mammal eDNA workshop. It was a great experience for him. During the workshop there were some really interesting talks about collecting seawater and then extracting the environmental DNA (eDNA) from the sample to detect and identify the cetacean’s eDNA. Victor, our biologist who attended the workshop, met an old colleague from the past, Owen Wangesteen, he was doing a PostDoc on the same project as Victor’s master’s thesis: evolutionary genetics. They had a very interesting talk about the chance that we would have to collect seawater, extract the marine mammal eDNA, and know more about the cetacean distribution in São Miguel.
At the end of the workshop the attendees split into groups to have different kinds of chats like eDNA in the field, eDNA in the lab, design an eDNA study etc… During these chats, our biologist met a lot of researchers who are working or trying to work with eDNA extracted from the sea, blow of the whale, or even the feces; the latter is exactly what Futurismo is doing. He met Camilo Saavedra; the president from the “Sociedad Española de Cetaceos” and they had an interesting chat with the message that opportunistic sources, such as whale watching tours, are highly valuable to contribute in the knowledge of the marine mammals and the conservation of the marine ecosystem.
During the conference we attended the lectures and there were a couple of sessions that were particularly interesting to the situation of the Azores, and the research we are doing on Sao Miguel.
Lectures: The Navy
There were speakers who were funded by the navy, who had some interesting talks. As most of you would know, the navy is very active at sea and the activities and sonar that they emit at sea can have detrimental effects on marine mammals. However not all sonar has the same sound and intensity, and not all naval activities have the same impacts on the environment. Some of the lectures showed which activities had more impact on for example sperm whales and beaked whales. This was very interesting for us, as we have had strandings of beaked whales within the last 2 years, with the presence of Navy Vessels. So we learned a lot about what harm the navy could do to the animals, and we are hoping that this knowledge will help us understand the cause of death of future stranded animals on Sao Miguel.
Lectures: New techniques
A whole session of lectures was dedicated to new techniques. This is because it is very important to understand new methods to study marine mammals so that we can understand more about the animals and find more efficient ways to understand them faster. Drones, and underwater drones are quite upcoming and a less invasive way of filming the marine mammals. We can view the behaviour from a different perspective. Also, some techniques were directly applicable to the research we do here at Futurismo. For example, there were lectures on automating the photo Identification that we use to identify individuals. In Futurismo, we currently still do all the Photo ID matching and processing manually; take an example of the common dolphin poster which was presented at this conference, it was hard work. We managed to automate a part of our work. One of the creators of the program of Photo ID Ninja was presenting its use; it is a way to crop the pictures automatically and save us a lot of time during the processing of pictures, and we used Photo ID Ninja in our common dolphin poster. However, all of the matching of the common dolphins was done manually. To have some automation done, we will save a lot of time. In the future we hope to use more of these innovative techniques that were presented in this conference!